It used to bother me when I heard people talk about the evolution of comic books. The conversations always seemed to slightly demean the books of the past. I have heard people talk about Silver Age books like they were written and drawn by cavemen. I have mellowed a bit on this anger. I realized they weren’t really talking about the evolution of comics. They were subscribers to the idea of intelligent design behind comics. (OXYMORON!)
The truth is there isn’t any end goal. There isn’t any perfect book. The guys who wrote books thirty years ago are just as smart as the writers today. The artists are just as talented. The audience, technology, and the expectations have changed. The comics industry has evolved into a rather ruthless creature. Imagine a nightmarish creature with claws made of variant covers and a mouth full of crossovers. It isn’t better or worse in my eyes. Just different. Different because we are different.
Evolution is a sloppy process. It is process that is enslaved to the conditions surrounding it. The evolution of comics is tied to the market. It is chasing your dollar. In that chase it might go down some dead ends. It could loop around on itself. It can happen slowly or a giant meteor can come crashing down on the industry. None of it really leading necessarily towards “better” comics. Just the comics that the companies think the market wants. There are a couple of these meteors that I find particularly interesting. They sent comics lurching forward but I do have a secret wish that intelligent hands could have guided the process a bit better.
There is Watchmen. The seminal comic book maxi-series by Alan Moore (Thanks Alan!) and Dave Gibbons. There are fans of this series that would particularly enjoy the analogy of a red hot ball of destruction burning away the dinosaurs of the industry. Moore and Gibbons turned the conventions of the superhero upside down. It was an epic shift in what a superhero comic could do. It had layers upon layers within it. The pirate story and it’s interconnection with the main story is true genius. It is a work that reveals new depths each time that I read it.
It didn’t so much burn away all the old stuff as land gently on top of the shoulders of the historical works. Watchmen is built on the tropes of the superhero genre. That is why it drives me absolutely insane when someone picks up a comic book for the first time and it is Watchmen. Watchmen is the peak of an iceberg. If you haven’t read stories about self driven vigilantes then you won’t see the subversiveness of Rorschach’s character. What is the impact of the Dr. Manhattan story line if you don’t have experience with super powerful godlike characters? The book’s impact lies heavily in the history of superheroes. It wasn’t created in a vacuum so it shouldn’t be read in a vacuum. It isn’t the first thing that you should read in comics.
Newer readers often read Watchmen and don’t grasp the impact it had on the industry. I love Watchmen and I read it every summer. There is a part of it’s impact that is completely dependent on context. In that sense Watchmen really wasn’t a meteor so much as an exit on the evolution highway. It just so happened that everyone decided to take that exit. And stay there. For a couple decades. Watchmen was an interesting twist on the superhero story, not the road map for how comics are supposed to be written for adults. The shadow of Watchmen still looms over the capes crowd today.
Now hold on! I hear many of you yelling, “Tom just wants everything to be like the Silver Age!” I can’t totally argue with that. There are elements of the Silver Age mentality that I wished still existed in comics…and that I think STILL exist in some of my favorite comics. If I could reach back (Krona style) and interfere with the evolution of comics I would protect a few more of the elements. I would design the following:
I would make sure that The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the de facto future for Batman. It is an incredible work of art and I thoroughly enjoy reading it, but it is has enslaved Batman for a couple decades now.
I would snag Jack Kirby out of the past and pay him to come up with fifty different crazy ideas. Then I would just toss them into the industry every couple years just to keep everyone on their toes.
I would make sure there was only one X-Men book. One Spider-Man book. Three Flash books.
I would make sure that All-Ages never means Just For Kids. Tarot will also still be available. If that is your thing. I am not judging…much.
I would make sure that the Thing still had a team-up book. Seriously. The Thing is awesome.
None of this matters to the evolution of comics. Now I am just trying to make my own Rao Comic industry. That just isn’t how it works. I can buy what creators make and do my bit to nudge things to my own liking, but I can’t make or break the meteors. My major consolation is that none of you can do it either. We just have to sit and watch the industry get leaner and meaner. Huddle in the Katers Kave and pass me the Essentials.
Tom Katers has no control over what happens in the comics. He did not bring Barry Allen back.